“Creating Shakespeare” – The Newberry

Newberry_Building_aerial.jpg

Recently, I sat down to talk with Jill Gage, Bibliographer for British Literature and History at the Newberry Library. She has also recently succeeded Paul Gehl as Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. Dr. Gage and I discussed “Creating Shakespeare,” an exhibition she is currently curating and which will be free and open to the public at the Newberry beginning on September 23.

Andrew S. Keener: To begin, could you tell me a little bit about your background in the world of librarianship? What brought you to the Newberry?

Jill Gage: I’ve never worked anywhere other than the Newberry Library. I started here as an intern while I was in library school, doing my MA in Library Science and my MA in English simultaneously, and when I finished, the Newberry created a job for me. In 2010, I went back to school to get my PhD at the University of London, specializing in eighteenth-century English literature. Now, I do all of the antiquarian acquisitions for the fields of British literature and history, and I’m the subject specialist as well, which is how I ended up being the curator of the Newberry’s Shakespeare exhibition.

AK: I think this leads us into the exhibit. We’re here in the midst of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and there are hundreds of events going on all over the city for Shakespeare 400 Chicago. Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing?

JG: We started working on the exhibit in 2012. I’m not by training a Shakespearean scholar, but I do know the Newberry’s collections, and this was an opportunity to think about what we have and what we might offer.

I started out by typing the word “Shakespeare” into our catalog, and it grew from there. We’ve decided to call the exhibit Creating Shakespeare because the story of Shakespeare’s survival has actually very little to do with Shakespeare himself, or at least that’s one way of thinking about it. We have the First Folio, without which he might have slipped into obscurity; but then, starting in the late seventeenth century, many others have shaped Shakespeare and created Shakespeare in ways that are new for each successive generation. That’s the really interesting story for me.

The hard thing about the exhibition is that there are endless ways of thinking about Shakespeare. Honestly, the Newberry’s strongest collection of Shakespeare materials is seventeenth-century materials, and I’d love to do an exhibit of just those items, but one of my jobs as a curator and librarian is to think broadly. I’ve tried to invite people who look at the exhibition to think, “I didn’t know anything like that existed,” or, “I didn’t know the Newberry had that.” This way, visitors who aren’t as interested in the quartos or the First Folio might be struck by nineteenth-century sheet music, newspapers, or a radio play.

AK: Can you tell us a few things about what sort of items will be in the exhibition? What can we look forward to? I’m aware that some of the items on display will be coming from places beyond the Newberry as well.

JG: Yes. We are borrowing from the British Library, the Folger Shake­speare Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard, Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as four private collectors.

The British Library is sending four manuscripts and the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet, which is one of only two known copies. This book has been called a “bad quarto” because it’s so different from the later editions; it’s much shorter than the second quarto, many of the speeches are rearranged, and it has unique stage directions. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about what this “bad quarto” is, and whether it is actually “bad”—it could be an adaptation from the stage, or a memorial reconstruction by actors who were in the play. I think it’s really a perfect object to include, since it gives us a window into all the people who created Shakespeare and how Shakespeare has been mediated and created by other people from the beginning.

We’re also borrowing the John Manningham diary from the British Library. Manningham was a seventeenth-century law student who kept very gossipy notebooks, and he recorded seeing a production of Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple. It reminds him of The Comedy of Errors, and his favorite scene is when Malvolio reads Maria’s letter. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, we’re borrowing a lot of theatrical materials, including David Garrick’s promptbook for Hamlet and an Edmund Booth costume from the nineteenth century.

AK: Those seem like fantastic items. To take a step back: how, to your mind, will Creating Shakespeare fit into the broader landscape of events and performances around the city celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare?

JG: Shakespeare 400 Chicago is a wonderful, groundbreaking effort that Chicago Shakespeare Theater has coordinated with so many other cultural institutions, and the Newberry’s role is to help provide the historical background. We have a Chicago-specific section in the exhibit, beginning in the 1860s. And, in fact, that section includes the one thing I cannot tell you about, which is going to be the most blockbuster thing of all.

But Creating Shakespeare is a process that is ongoing; it’s still happening, and it’s going to be happening in the future. Our programming around the exhibit really fits in with celebrating the way our collections have been used by scholars and artists within the local community. We do have three scholars, James Shapiro, Peter Holland, and Coppélia Kahn, who will give traditional talks. They’ll all be great, but we really wanted to celebrate performance in Chicago, too. We don’t want to be seen as the ivory tower part of it; I think the programming is actually an integral part of the exhibition.

AK: Here’s a final question that sums up some of what we’ve been talking about. Simply put, what does Shakespeare mean to you, as a curator, researcher, and librarian?

JG: There’s something about Shakespeare that ties us all together, which I find quite poignant. Not that much that we share stretches from 1616 to 2016. Four hundred years of people have read or seen Shakespeare and somehow been inspired, whether that means cutting out all the sad parts, or making illustrations of Falstaff. I think that idea of inspiration, of creativity, is fascinating.


Andrew S. Keener is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he researches drama, literary translation and the publication and use of bilingual dictionaries and grammar books in Renaissance England. He also has interests in rare book exhibit curation and computational approaches to language and lit-erature. He holds an MA in English from North Carolina State University and a BA in English from Boston College. Read more…